November 14, 2023 • By Dennis Beaver

Serendipity played a role, too, in Albert ‘Bert’ McBride’s rise from poisonous-snake expert to urologist. At 85, he’s still in practice.

There are many things we can be proud of as Americans. One is using our wealth to foster education, as you will see in today’s story.

If you are like most people, just reading the headline on this article really got your attention. Snakes! Psychologists believe humans have evolved a tendency to fear them, as well as spiders, which leave me heading for the exit!

But that’s not the case for Albert “Bert” McBride, who grew up on a ranch near the small town of Grants, New Mexico, located along Route 66 (which author John Steinbeck referred to as the Mother Road in his book The Grapes of Wrath), 78 miles west of Albuquerque at an elevation of 6,460 feet.

This rugged part of New Mexico has a large population of rattlesnakes, and from the time he was 12 years old, McBride — who could have been nicknamed Fearless — earned money by trapping rattlers and other venomous snakes and milking their venom for laboratories that developed antivenom, aka antivenin.

“Atkinson’s Cobra Gardens,” McBride said, “was located near my town and the owner had all sorts of snakes — including boa constrictors — which the tourists driving on Route 66 happily paid to see. When I was 15, I lectured about the snakes, going into the pits and milking them as tourists looked on. I did this every summer throughout high school. One day, due to inattention, a rattler bit me. I was given antivenom and recovered with no ill effects, but my interest in snakes attracted the attention of the science teacher at high school. He suggested that I enter a science fair and do an exhibit on venomous snakes. I did, and talk about serendipity, I won first place — which was a scholarship to Arizona State University!”

Life Sciences department has a request

While at ASU, McBride’s knowledge of reptiles came to the attention of the Life Sciences department chair, and he was asked to work in the Poisonous Animal Research Laboratory, “where I milked Gila monsters, cobras and rattlesnakes, scorpions, you name it. We had the deadliest of snakes in this amazing place. I got bit again when I was 19, milking a big rattlesnake, and one of its fags entered my thumb below the nail. Again, antivenom was administered, and I fully recovered.”

We’ve all heard the expression “do good things and good things happen.” Happen they did, McBride explained, as he was accepted by several medical schools based on good grades and wonderful recommendations.

And serendipity had greater plans for him.

‘I had nothing to lose’

“Since the sixth grade,” McBride said, “I knew that I wanted to be a doctor and help people. Among others, the nation’s most expensive, George Washington University School of Medicine in D.C., accepted me. But my parents were of modest means and could not help pay the expenses. And then I saw an article in the Arizona Republic about a millionaire in Scottsdale, Walker McCune, heir to the Pennzoil fortune, wanting to donate $20 million to establish a medical school in Arizona. I had nothing to lose, so I sent a letter to the gentleman via the Arizona Republic, asking if he had a scholarship or loan fund I could apply to.

“About a week later, his lawyer replied, ‘We have reviewed your impressive résumé, and Mr. McCune has decided that you are to be our very first recipient of what will now be known as the Medical Student Scholarship Fund. Please find enclosed checks for your tuition and living expenses for medical school in Washington, D.C., which will be renewed yearly.’”

McBride graduated in 1963 and got a residency in general surgery.

Becomes a urologist, but he’s not finished with snakes

“In residency, the professor of Urology offered me a position in his department, which is how I became a urologist,” McBride said. “I was also contacted by the zoo director in Washington, D.C., who knew about my background with deadly snakes. ‘Dr. McBride, we have no one here who knows very much about deadly snakes. Can you help us set up a program to deal with snake-bite emergencies?’”

Of course, McBride agreed.

It was the first of several snake-bite protocols he helped establish around the country, setting up teams of physicians who would be on call. His protocols are still in use today.

Spends a year on hospital ship in Vietnam

After finishing his residency in 1968, he was drafted and spent one year on board the hospital ship Repose in Vietnam. “I worked with 30 other doctors,” he said, “learning and helping each other for the full betterment of the patient, and nothing else mattered. We were practicing pure medicine — ‘we’re in this for nothing else but the care of the patient,’ totally.”

Following Vietnam, he practiced in San Diego for 26 years, served as an associate professor of urology with UCSD and taught urology at the Naval Hospital in San Diego.

Years later, McBride moved to my town, Bakersfield, where he was on the faculty of Kern Medical Center.

McBride is 85, still in practice and “loves every contact with my patients, all due to my friend, serendipity.”

And I am proud to call McBride my friend.